A Discussion with Sarah Brayne and Nicol Turner Lee

March 6, 2024

(This event was not recorded)

Over the last three decades, law enforcement agencies have turned toward proactive rather than just responsive policing, examining patterns in the people and places involved in criminal acts to try to disrupt crime before it happens or better target known hotspots. This CompStat era of big data policing has increasingly given way to an era of predictive policing. Law enforcement agencies are frequently using algorithms and proprietary technology to inform patrol decisions and police decision-making. This increasing use of data and technology in policing has been pitched by some as an accountability tool that allows for more accurate crime reporting, more responsive police service, improved efficiency, and reduced bias. But the big data revolution in policing also has major implications for widening the scope of police contact, compromising privacy and civil liberties, and entrenching social inequity. Some independent evaluations have shown, for example that technology like PredPol/Geolitica and ShotSpotter disproportionately send officers to low-income Black and Latino neighborhoods, but suffer from inaccuracy in predictions and limited efficacy in preventing or reducing crime. Research has shown that crime prediction software and other algorithmic tools, despite their appearance of impartiality and promise of scientific rigor, can ultimately perpetuate disparities or amplify existing biases. Our guests, Dr. Sarah Brayne and Dr. Nicol Turner Lee, discussed how to weigh these costs and benefits in shaping public policy.


Sarah BrayneSarah Brayne is an Associate Professor of Sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. She received her PhD in Sociology and Social Policy at Princeton University and completed a postdoc at Microsoft Research New England. In her research, Brayne analyzes the social consequences of data-intensive surveillance practices. She uses qualitative and quantitative methods to examine how these developments are—and are not—transforming longstanding social structures and mechanisms of social stratification. Her first book, Predict and Surveil: Data, Discretion, and the Future of Policing, draws on ethnographic research within the Los Angeles Police Department to understand the social implications of how law enforcement uses predictive analytics and new surveillance technologies. In earlier work, she developed a theory of "system avoidance," using survey data to test the relationship between criminal legal contact and involvement in medical, financial, labor market, and educational institutions. She is currently working on a project examining the role of exposure to the criminal legal system in shaping racial and ethnic disparities in health, aging, and mortality. Brayne has been volunteer teaching college classes in prisons since 2012 and is the founder and director of the Texas Prison Education Initiative (TPEI), a group of faculty and students who volunteer teach college classes in prisons in Texas.

Nicol Turner LeeNicol Turner Lee is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings, the director of the Center for Technology Innovation (CTI), and co-editor-in-chief of TechTank. Turner Lee researches public policy designed to enable equitable access to technology across the U.S. and to harness its power to create change in communities across the world. She is an expert on the intersection of race, wealth, and technology within the context of civic engagement, criminal justice, and economic development. Her book, Digitally Invisible: How the Internet is Creating the New Underclass, was published in 2021. Turner Lee came to Brookings from the Multicultural Media, Telecom and Internet Council (MMTC), a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting and preserving equal opportunity and civil rights in the mass media, telecommunications, and broadband industries, where she served as vice president and chief research and policy officer. Prior to MMTC, she was vice president and the first director of the Media and Technology Institute at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. Turner Lee has been cited in the New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and other major national outlets. She can also be seen or heard on NPR, NBC News, ABC and other print and online publications. She is a widely sought expert and speaker on issues related to communications policies in media and at conferences, and she has testified on multiple occasions before Congress. She was a two-time Digital Research Program Scholar as part of Time Warner Cable’s Cable Research Program in Communications and recipient of countless recognitions, including the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rainbow PUSH Coalition (2015 and 2019) and one of the Most Inspiring Women in Media from the Alliance of Women in Media (2014). Turner Lee graduated from Colgate University magna cum laude and has a M.A. and Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. She also holds a certificate in nonprofit management from the University of Illinois-Chicago. 

Moderated by Katy Naples-Mitchell, Program Director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management.

Links to resources mentioned during the event

You can read more about Sarah Brayne's writing on the relationship between Palantir and the LAPD here: How the LAPD and Palantir Use Data to Justify Racist Policing

More information about police use of stingrays tracked here by the ACLU: Stingray Tracking Devices: Who's Got Them?

For some specifics for Massachusetts, see: Stingrays, Simulators, Surveillance, and Silverados

Dr. Turner Lee referenced this National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report: Facial Recognition: Current Capabilities, Future Prospects, and Governance

A ProPublica investigation into the racial bias built into risk assessment algorithms: Machine Bias

The Surveillance, Criminalization, and Punishment  speaker series is organized by Katy Naples-Mitchell, Program Director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management, and  Sandra Susan Smith, Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice; Faculty Director, Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management; Director, Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy; Professor of Sociology; and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute.